Harry Potter and the Idea of Death
by Siria Ciraux
Being a very avid, and somewhat obsessed Harry Potter fan, I can’t help but notice that death and immortality are major themes in the Harry Potter series. Although I don’t find the books to be ominous or morbid, I think it’s very interesting the way J.K Rowling presents the idea of death in her books.
In Book 1, The Sorcerer’s Stone or The Philosopher’s Stone, death and the idea of dying play a major role, as is very evident in the title. The “sorcerer’s” or philosopher’s stone itself is a stone that can make you immortal, a kind of way of escaping death. Until the end of the book, it is considered very precious and guarded by the request of Nicolas Flamel very closely and carefully. Indeed, a whole slew of obstacles are set before it to be sure it is protected. This suggests that not only is it very important to the Flamels, but it is a very dangerous object that wouldn’t want to go into the wrong hands. But, by the end of the book, the Stone is voluntarily destroyed, and we hear a profound thought from Dumbledore: “Humans have a knack for choosing precisely the things that are worst for them,” in reference to immortality. So, the book concludes with Nicolas and his wife dying, not sadly, but peacefully, showing that death is a natural, perhaps satisfying, process which should happen to everyone someday. It also concludes that the search for immortality is a general bad idea, that death will and should come. This shows the opinion that immortality is not only bad for the people, but perhaps even immoral. Even though Nicholas is a wise man, he uses the stone for 600+ years, showing that immortality is incredibly tempting and only human nature to crave.
We are almost positively shown that immortality is an immoral thing perhaps in some parts of Book 1 but defiantly in Book 4. After all, besides being against muggles (a mugglist?) Voldemort’s main thing was to gain immortality. His name means thief of death. First issue is Voldemort, before Book 4, is not dead; but, is he really alive? If you cannot be killed, can you really be alive? Is it worth being not dead if you’re not alive (like a ghost)? It seems as though it is just Voldemort’s spirit that is alive, not really him, because he didn’t even have a body to possess until Quirrell came along (minus the snakes). But after drinking the unicorn blood, he will have “a cursed life, a half life.” A life at all? (It is almost as though drinking unicorn blood is like a dementor kiss: it leaves you alive, but is sucks out your soul.) Drinking unicorn blood is considered an extremely immoral way to keep “alive” if you are on the brink of death.
Also, there is the concept of Death Eaters. Taken out of context, trying to eliminate death almost seems like a super hero, good-guy thing to do, but it is Voldemort who is determined to do it. He is in fact obsessed with it. For example, in the end of the fifth book, Dumbledore says that there are things worse than death. Voldemort disagrees with him. This is perhaps why Voldemort is so evil and will go to any ends to make himself immortal, no matter how immoral it is. This shows that, despite how very tempting it is, the attempt at immortality is a terrible thing and must be stopped by “good” wizards.
In the end of the fourth book, Voldemort comes “alive” by a potion. He is still very weak, but is “returned to power.” The “look of triumph” from Dumbledore makes us think that 1) maybe Voldemort made a mistake in his potion, or 2) maybe now Voldemort is human enough to kill. Assuming the second is true, you have to think that to really accomplish anything, you have to be human, therefore mortal. To be such, you can be killed. Voldemort could have lived on forever in his state at the beginning of Book 4, but never have gotten anything done, or he could make himself vulnerable to death and actually do something in the world. (BTW, it seems potion, immortality, and evil are often linked. Snape saying, “or even stopper in death.”)
In the Harry Potter series, there seem to be many ways to transcend death, one of which is to become a ghost. This seems to make death worse, however. Nearly Headless Nick discusses his condition with Harry after the death of Sirius. Once again, this conversation seems to emphasize that letting go, as the Flamels eventually did, of life when it is naturally time to die is the best choice. In a sense, Nearly Headless Nick and the Flamels were having the same problem; they were both mentally the living dead. Since Nicolas Flamel should have died years ago, it is almost like he was dead, but continuing with his life anyway out of habit. Like Nearly Headless Nick, he was still living, still animate, but naturally, was ready for death, was ready to let go, and should have been dead. When Nick talks, it is bitterly, as if he wished he had let go, and been dead, where he naturally should have been. They were both just shadows of the living, they “walk palely where their living selves once trod.” Sirius, I believe, will not come back because he was prepared to die. I’m not saying he was suicidal or wished to die; but, he defiantly was willing to die for the Order, and knowing that, he had “a well-organized mind,” to which “death is but the next adventure.” Nearly Headless Nick was executed, and therefore was probably not ready to die and terrified of death, and therefore came back as a ghost. A ghost, which is seen as a rather unsatisfying way to end one’s life.
Thestrals are introduced in the fifth book as creatures you can only see once “death has sunken in.” I think J.K. Rowling is trying to show how much seeing a death effects someone, how much is changes them. We can also see this in how much the death of Cedric truly effects Harry in the fifth year through his nightmares of Cedric continuing throughout the summer.
It also seems that risking one’s life, or saving one’s life, constitutes major magical power. For example, when Lily died to save Harry, Harry could not be killed by Voldemort, and although the effect hasn’t been seen so far, Wormtail is in debt to Harry, which will probably have profound effects later. Also, consider Harry’s extreme grief when Sirius dies; but in the third book, he was determined to kill Sirius in their confrontation, but couldn’t find it in him. This eventually resulted in a great friendship of Sirius and Harry. Seems very ironic.
Lastly is the oh-so-mysterious black veil. I honestly have no idea where this is going to go in the next books, but it is fascinating. It seems that it’s a gateway between life and death, that the voices of the echoes of the dead.